(Sunday Homily) Why I Liked “American Sniper”


Readings for 3rd Sunday in ordinary time: DT 18: 15-20; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; I COR 7: 32-35; MK 1: 21-28

Today’s readings are about resistance to oppression. They invite us to side with the oppressed and poor in their fight against world-class bullies – to understand the world from the viewpoint of the “unclean.” Seen from that perspective, “American Sniper” is full of insight. It calls us to think critically about whose side we are on in the endless wars our country wages.

The need to see reality “from below” is a major point of today’s first reading. There the message of Moses announcing liberation of the oppressed is presented as the criterion of prophetic truth. Those who teach like Moses (on behalf of the enslaved) should be listened to. False prophets with another message will be punished. This first reading from the Jewish tradition goes on to promise the advent of another prophet like Moses.

By virtue of its inclusion in the liturgy of the word, today’s gospel selection from the Christian tradition identifies Jesus as fulfilling the Mosaic promise. He not only astounds people by his authoritative way of speaking. His action on behalf of a man considered “unclean” demonstrates Jesus’ prophetic authenticity.

That insight was on my mind last week when I decided to see “American Sniper” for myself. I had read the reviews. I knew the criticisms. But I wondered what it would look like if I followed the suggestions of today’s readings and viewed the film “from below,” from an Iraqi perspective.

What I discovered was surprising.

Viewed from the underside of history, “American Sniper” was a tribute to the world’s poor and oppressed – especially to the heroic people of Iraq. That’s because “American Sniper” was about resisting bullies the way the Iraqis have since 2003.

That bully theme is not farfetched. It was announced in one of the film’s opening scenes.

There an adolescent Chris Kyle is instructed by his father about three ways of being in the world. Kyle, of course, is the film’s central character – the most lethal sniper in the history of the American military. He is believed to have killed 255 Iraqis in his 4 tours of duty. Many, it is certain, had their heads blown right off.

“You can be a wolf, a sheep, or a sheepdog” Kyle’s father tells him (in my paraphrase). “Wolves are bullies; they are cowards preying on the weak. Sheep are the naïve who simply go along, following the herd; they do nothing about bullies. They too are cowards. The way to deal with bullies” says Kyle’s father,” is to be a sheepdog and protect those the bully preys upon.

“I want you to be sheepdogs!” the elder Kyle shouts at his sons, “Don’t let the bullies have their way.”

Ironically, the rest of “American Sniper” shows how Chris Kyle entirely rejected his father’s advice, but also how Iraqi patriots unconsciously heeded it. They emerge in the film as the sheepdogs Kyle’s father admired.

For his part, Kyle joins a gang that specifically preys upon the weak for no good reason – simply because it can and because (as Kyle writes) it’s fun. Chris Kyle became a gangster bully.

No, he didn’t join the “Crips” or “Bloods,” “Sharks” or “Jets.” He joined the “Seals.” And their destructive power was beyond belief. To begin with, their gang attire was fearful including matching helmets and boots, flak jackets, camouflage, wrap-around sunglasses, and night vision goggles. They had guns of all types, unlimited supplies of bullets, grenades, missile launchers, armored vehicles, helicopters, planes, and sophisticated communication devices. They prowled in menacing groups along the streets of Bagdad pointing guns at open windows and doors, pedestrians and drivers.

But it wasn’t easy for aspiring bullies to become Seals; doing so required absolute submission and humiliation. So as with all gangs, they had their initiation rites. These included merciless hazing and demeaning tests of endurance. Such rites of passage were accompanied by constant indoctrination that left initiates exhausted and absolutely malleable. In terms of today’s responsorial psalm, their hearts were sufficiently hardened for the inhuman tasks before them.

As a result, and with no knowledge whatever of their intended victims, Seals became convinced that anyone their superiors identified as “targets” were savages. They knew that because their indoctrinators told them so.  They knew nothing else about Iraq, Iraqis or their culture. And so, and like their Indian Fighter predecessors, Seals hated “savages” and wanted them all dead.

In other words, gang aspirants became servile and submissive sheep. They obeyed orders without question or understanding of context. (It’s the military way.) Seals stood ready to kill women, children, the elderly and disabled – anyone identified by their superiors or who threatened their mafia-like ethos of “family.” Protecting one’s “brothers” in crime became the justification of any slaughter. As a result of that brainwashing, Seals were entirely unable to see their “enemies” human beings.

Such identification was difficult for audiences of “American Sniper” as well. Nonetheless, Iraqi humanity inevitably surfaced for anyone remembering today’s readings about Moses and Jesus.  Those prophetic lenses revealed the Seals’ victims to be the successors of the poor and oppressed that both of those prophets came to rescue.

Think about the Iraqis for a minute.

Like their predecessors in Egypt, they were perfect targets for bullies. They had no army, no sophisticated weapons, no helicopters, planes or armored vehicles. They wore no uniforms or protective clothing. Apart from unemployed members of Iraq’s Republican Guard, almost none had formal military training.

Instead they were simple peasants, merchants, teachers, barbers and taxi drivers. They were fathers and mothers, children barely able to lift a grenade launcher, grandparents, friends and neighbors banding together as best they could to protect their homes, families from the ignorant, marauding invaders who proudly called themselves “The Seals.” Unable to show weapons in public (like their menacing occupiers), Iraqis hid them by day under floor boards in their homes.

Some were so desperate that they were willing to sacrifice themselves and their children to resist the Seal home-invaders. So they became suicide bombers. Others experimented with non-violent resistance. They were willing to share their tables with the barbarians from abroad, offering them food and shelter in hopes that kindness might win them over.

But no such luck.

So the majority resorted to defending themselves and each other with weapons – mostly captured or left over from previous Seal invasions (there have been many). What else were these brave patriots to do?

One of them became particularly admired. He had been a national hero, called Mustafa. In the story, this fictional character was an Olympic gold medal winner like the American’s Michael Phelps. But instead of resting on his laurels or using his status to protect himself from harm, he employed his skills as a sharp shooter to defend his people.

We can only imagine the pride that swelled the hearts of Iraqis when they heard how he inspired fear in the American bullies who constantly kicked in their doors, destroyed and looted their property, belittled their culture and faith, intimidated their children, frightened their elders, and demeaned their women.

In the end, Mustafa became a glorious martyr.

Again ironically, he was gunned down by his ignorant American counterpart. He was killed by the bully without a thought in his head who was in the game for fun, for the rush of battle, and to protect his relatively invulnerable “brothers” from the harm they deserved at the hands of the civilian victims they tormented.

In what can only be described as an act of self-loathing, that counterpart, Chris Kyle, takes careful aim and from a great and safe distance shoots a patriot he considers “savage,” because he mirrors so well his own bloody “work.”

It’s easy to vilify Chris Kyle. But he’s not to blame. He was no different from any other soldier serving in Iraq. He was no different from drone “pilots” operating from their air-conditioned “theaters” in Nevada or New Mexico. Sad to say, all of them are unwitting bullies and gangsters. They are brainwashed sheep.

Today’s readings are a reminder of all that. So is “American Sniper.”

Both call us to put ourselves in the shoes of those we are taught to hate.

Shockingly, they call us to change sides!

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

6 thoughts on “(Sunday Homily) Why I Liked “American Sniper””

  1. Well, Mike, here I go again –directly opposed to everything that you have said here. According to the New Testament that I read and understand and try to follow (acknowledging fully the culture differences between then and now), what you are saying and implying – and using as proof – is anti-thetical to everything that Jesus lived and taught. With one exception – overturning the tables and physically evicting the money changers in the Temple. Here He showed righteous anger. That’s a hell of a lot different from drones, automatic weapons, deadly chemicals and heavily armored tanks, not to mention the obscene concept of ‘collateral damage’ that we know is a clever euphemism for killing people -flesh and blood human beings — just like us!

    I have not viewed the complete film but I have seen clips and cutouts and have read opinions and seen interviews and op/ed pieces by persons with whom I agree.

    As a nation of supposedly fair minded and moral people, we will never achieve peace nor ever try to understand this insane out of control murderous interchange among the warring parties in the Middle East by trying to kill more human beings technologically faster and dirtier. Christians are not supposed to subscribe to the Old Testament adage, “an eye for an eye.” That must be anathema to us. Otherwise, we just disregard and refuse to accept what the Incarnate God, Jesus the Christ, came to tell us by his words and actions over two thousand years ago. We can just sit back then and let the forces of darkness rule — and, make no mistake about that, Mike, you know that such forces exist.

    I say unequivocally that I am opposed to ISIS and all the murderous thugs and other entities that are perpetrating atrocities against innocent people – in Iraq, Syria, Israel, and in the entire Middle East.
    We need to vacate the entire area immediately – pull out and let them govern themselves. Let them reap what they sow of their own volition.
    Bush father and son got us embroiled in that geographic quagmire under false pretenses using distorted information and outright lies. Israel’s Zionist leadership continues to fan the flames to ensure that their human rights violations and despotic actions against the indigenous Palestinians will keep those fires burning for decades — aided and abetted, we now know, by the financial and government support of the United States — all this in the name of the voters. What a sham. We are paying a terrible price for all of this, Mike. And, I fear, that it is still in the beginning stages.


  2. Very interesting Aliceny – and very similar to the reviews from the sources I also read.
    Mike’s take I also found informative and for me very convincing.
    I have not seen the film and likely will not but I appreciate what for me, and likely Mike , may be the bottom line…it is all about environment. And from the angle one looks at it.
    If I may be personal….at one point I worked as a US licensed financial advisor in Okinawa to the military “effort” in the Viet Nam war. My only media access then in ’68, to “the world” as the troops called it was the daily Stars and Stripes and FEN – Far East Military Radio Network. I was brainwashed to the cause – especially as I profited monetarily from it and then happened to be a big US fan – and of the Phillies.. It was similar to the time I spent in a catholic seminary…a believer, but with wall to wall brainwashing even as far as ‘papal infallibility”.
    Hence the Sniper can be forgiven.
    He is not the real sniper nor his target the real target.
    Most online broadsheets in the US and EU are equally stifling.
    I do a “drivel test” every now and then with the very respected BBC online. It is 95.c.% supportive of all UK establishment interests, from royalty, to RC Blair, to British Petroleum, which puts US interest just a little behind there own. (They accept second fiddle.) They leave the window of fresh air open 5% as a pretense to make their lies credible. A little like the Irish Micky Finn! It produces as Chomsky might say brain atomisation. A glassy-eyed state..
    I admire Bush for his honesty in saying (I paraphrase), one can fool some of the people all the time – and since they were his constituency he liked the odds. The dumbed down middle class which Mike seems to refer to.
    Little Ireland is the same except we live in a fanciful denial syndrome believing for example our offering stop-over refueling rights in Shannon airport for onward US rendition was in no way abetting the horror of man’s ultimate iniquity to its fellow man. Where it makes boiling in oil like a picnic on the lawn playing wiffle-ball with the kids! (For all our Irish Gov. knew, or rather wanted to know, they flights could have been going to Lourdes seeking a cure.) Our theology gives us flexibility!
    I now only take my news from very select correct-wing sources like dem-now. common dreams, tom-dispatch, truthdig etc, of which this searing blog I regard as one! The only problem is the readership – the reach – is limited for now, and the response from it is so negligible and silent even Spiro Agnew would be impressed!
    When it comes to the Pentateuch, having been a student like Mike of Dr Eamonn O’Doherty for a few years, I am inclined to disregard its historicity.
    So thank you both for a view from above and also the one “from below”.


    1. Thanks, Jim, for this thoughtful and packed comment. When 133 nations can meet in Bolivia (as they did on June 17th of this year) and declare their intention to “destroy America’s New World Order,” and not have this reported prominently in the mainstream media, that says an awful lot about that media itself. We’re living in a cocoon. The world is very different from what we’re led to believe in this province. You’re blessed to live outside where you’re better able to exercise critical thinking in its best sense.


  3. More on The Sniper by Chomsky. See clip below.
    I was also sickened to hear on Newstalk radiio that at the Dublin showing over this
    weekend, audiences cheered at the sniper kills.


    1. I saw this clip by Chomsky, Jim. As always, he’s insightful and hard-hitting. When I see his articles and talks on-line, I always read or watch. He’s one of the only public figures I can say that about.
      As for the audience reaction to “American Sniper,” sad, but (unfortunately) not surprising.


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